On Sunday morning, a 1,000 word opinion piece appeared in pages of the Charleston Gazette-Mail, a West Virginia newspaper, under the headline “Why I’m voting against the For the People Act.” In it, Senator Joe Manchin lays out his argument against supporting a key piece of legislation- championed by Democrats and advocacy groups concerned with voting rights- intended to strengthen the rule of law and combat the erosion of democracy.
“The truth, I would argue, is that voting and election reform that is done in a partisan manner will all but ensure partisan divisions continue to deepen,” Senator Manchin writes. What is supreme, to Manchin, is not achieving the voting rights and anti-corruption measures in the bill, but another ideal: bipartisanship. Indeed, Manchin offers no substantive objection to any of the measures in the bill, resting his entire argument on the fact that it is not supported by both parties.
“I believe that partisan voting legislation will destroy the already weakening binds of our democracy, and for that reason, I will vote against the For the People Act. Furthermore, I will not vote to weaken or eliminate the filibuster. For as long as I have the privilege of being your U.S. senator, I will fight to represent the people of West Virginia, to seek bipartisan compromise no matter how difficult and to develop the political bonds that end divisions and help unite the country we love.”
The news that Manchin will oppose the For the People Act “puts the bill in tenuous footing in the evenly split Senate,” as Axios reports. Pro-democracy advocates are rightly concerned.
Let’s pause for a moment and catch folks up on what exactly this legislation, which already passed the House, is supposed to accomplish. The For the People Act is an ambitious bid to protect American elections and ensure voters’ rights. The legislation contains language that would:
- Protect vote-by-mail and early voting options to improve participation
- Require a mandatory paper trail for all elections
- Restore the voting rights of former felons
- Address gerrymandering by requiring non-partisan redistricting
- Strengthen the cybersecurity of our elections
- Require campaigns to report foreign contacts
- Require the President and Vice president to divest from financial interests
- Require candidates for President and Vice President to release tax returns
- Improve ethics rules enforcement
- Make political ads more transparent, including digital ads
- Prohibit foreign nationals from purchasing political ads
- Address loopholes that permit dark money to influence elections
Why do Republicans oppose these things? It’s simple- since the rules of democracy no longer favor its interests, the party seeks to limit the right to vote and maintain its grip on power through any means. And the For the People Act would put a stop to key tactics Republicans are using to pursue that strategy.
As Washington Post columnist Greg Sargent points out, all of this happens against the backdrop of escalating concerns about American democracy. In a stunning letter published last week, one hundred “scholars of democracy” warned about the “radical changes to core electoral procedures in response to unproven and intentionally destructive allegations of a stolen election,” noting that “these initiatives are transforming several states into political systems that no longer meet the minimum conditions for free and fair elections. Hence, our entire democracy is now at risk.”
The For the People Act would supersede such legislation passed in the states, where in many Republican-controlled legislatures Trumpist bills devised under the delusion of the Big Lie are advancing. This sets it apart from another important piece of voting rights legislation- HR4, the John Lewis Voting Rights Act, which as Sherrilyn Ifill, President and Director-Counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, points out “would leave in place the damage from voter suppression bills in Georgia, Florida and other states, and does not expand access to absentee or early voting, as HR 1 (For the People Act) would do.”
And while Manchin may be right that current support for the For the People Act is currently mostly amongst Democrats, the origins of its provisions are in fact bipartisan, as a report from Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) makes clear. CREW “compiled nonpartisan and bipartisan reports that have proposed remedies to key democracy reforms included in H.R.1/S.1” in order “to disprove unfounded claims of partisanship surrounding the For the People Act.” In other words, the origin of the ideas in the legislation is not in some effort to seek “partisan advantage,” as Manchin suggests, but rather to address real problems in our democracy identified by experts across the aisles.
Manchin’s opposition to the For the People Act puts him in league with lobbyists like the US Chamber of Commerce, which objected to constraints the legislation would introduce on corporations that seek to influence politics. And of course, it puts him in league with Republicans, who have a vested interest in preserving the status quo in the Senate while state legislatures engineer exactly the partisan advantage to which Manchin claims he is opposed.
But in a broader sense, Manchin’s appeal to bipartisanship is bad thinking. When democracy itself is at risk, bipartisanship simply cannot and must not be the main objective for any legislator. Defending and bolstering the system must be the primary aim. Manchin’s platitudes may play well in a West Virginia broadsheet, but they will not stand up well to the test of time- if the future history of today’s events is indeed written by inhabitants of a democracy, and not a mono-ethnic authoritarian state as a majority of Republicans would apparently prefer.
I’m taking the liberty of using the links section in this, my third and final contribution to the CARD newsletter during Melissa’s parental leave, to direct you to some recent pieces at my new project, Tech Policy Press, a site focused on the intersection of tech & democracy. If you like these articles, consider signing up for that newsletter as well!
- In an announcement by its Vice President of Global Affairs, Nick Clegg, Facebook said former President Donald Trump will remain suspended for two years from the platform for his actions related to the violent siege at the US Capitol on January 6, but that the company will not open any new investigation into its role in the violence that day, instead calling on Congress to do so.
- The human and political ramifications of the recent violence in Israel and Palestine are still developing. Even as shattered buildings and lives are examined, it is important also to look at how the conflict played out in the digital realm. Social media played an integral role in the conflict, raising significant questions about the responsibility of platforms in times of war, writes Adi Cohen.
- A new paper considers one of the more prominent events organized by Russian operatives in the run up to the 2016 election, and the ways in which local organizers, the news media and social media were manipulated to create conflict on the streets of Houston, Texas. The study points to the necessity of more research as to why the information ecosystem in the United States appears so vulnerable to manipulation.
- In 2016, activists concerned with the flow of programmatic advertising dollars to mostly right wing websites known to spread misinformation and bigoted content started Sleeping Giants. Utilizing social media, the effort succeeded in using social media to pressure major advertisers to pull ads from sites such as Breitbart. In a preprint, researchers from Brazil’s Universidade Federal de Minas Gerais (UFMG) and Switzerland’s École polytechnique fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) detail the emergent strategy of the organization, and its effects.
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As I noted in my last CARD installment, we have a running joke/dialogue in the Twitter DM room where Greg, Melissa and I share links about all of the UFO stories of late. Since I last wrote to you, the New York Times reported that the expected publication of conclusions and information from American intelligence officials that was mandated by Congress will not make any definitive claim as to the origin of the “unidentified aerial phenomena”. That means we’re going to be left wondering what the heck the military is seeing up there for some time longer. I agree with my former Economist colleague Megan McArdle- who wrote in the Washington Post this weekend that we aren’t talking enough about this issue. Why aren’t we more focused on it? Megan concludes it may be that “historically, low-technology groups have almost universally fared badly when coming into contact with higher-technology cultures, even when that contact was made with the best of intentions. Perhaps the aliens, if they exist, are advanced enough to have solved that problem. But the alternative is so horrible that I suspect for many of us, it simply doesn’t bear thinking about.”
Maybe it is best to think about something else, indeed, like imagining this epic moment in one family’s history:
That’s it for me this week — Greg will send the next newsletter in two weeks’ time. Until then: stay cool.